No, our topic today is not BDSM (and can I say in passing how peculiar it has been to, almost, share a name with Christian Grey, the protagonist of 50 Shades of Grey?). Instead, I am going to reflect on Allan Massie’s extraordinary novel quartet comprising Death in Bordeaux (2010), Dark Summer in Bordeaux (2012), Cold Winter in Bordeaux (2014) and End Games in Bordeaux (2015).
These novels, which feature Superintendent Lannes are only in the most superficial sense roman policiers. Rather, they are an account of life in wartime France, concerned with the dilemmas of collaboration, resistance and the various shades of grey between. More than this, they show the moral ambiguities of these very categories, told in particular through Lannes’ sons, one of whom joins the Free French forces whilst another joins the Vichy regime. Both do so for honourable reasons.
History is a strange arbiter of morality. In some ways, it enables us to look back and see moral choices as rather easy: for example between resisting and collaborating, even though, as Massie’s novels show, the choices at the time were more agonizing. Other times, what may have at the time been experienced as easy choices (the rightness of joining up in 1914, say) now seem much less clear cut.
Massie’s Bordeaux quartet is quite beautifully written in showing how perspectival moral choices can be, not just in terms of his sons’ choices but those in the world of prostitutes, both male and female, and other demi-monde characters as they negotiate and exist within a complex moral universe. But it is not a work of moral relativism. Within the appreciation of the dilemmas of choice there are clear parameters so that Advocate Labouche is consistently depicted as irredeemably evil, but not so much because of his collaboration as for his bullying and sexual depravity.
Taken together the ‘Bordeaux’ quartet is a fascinating exploration of a theme which continues to be hugely controversial in France to the present day, although not quite reaching the heights of his masterpiece on that same theme, A Question of Loyalties (1989).
It strikes me that the recognition of moral ambiguities is something common to the best writing in the genres of crime and espionage, both of which I read voraciously. In fact, it is what makes such writing more than simply ‘genre novels’. John Le Carré’s ‘Smiley’ (or ‘Karla’) trilogy is the classic and perhaps still unsurpassed example, but excellent contemporary contributions include Edward Wilson’s ‘Catesby’ series and Joseph Kanon’s recent Leaving Berlin (2015).
The latter works derive some of their emotional charge from the fact that they concern secrecy and secret organizations. As mentioned in my last post this is something that currently interests me, and one aspect of this is that novels like Wilson’s and Le Carré’s in particular show how secret organizations are very recognizably similar to any other organization. For example, the same power plays, divisional rivalries or petty rules are in evidence. Conversely, ‘ordinary’ organizations are replete with secrets of all sorts even if they are not ostensibly or overtly concerned with secrecy. In fact, in both cases, whatever secrets are normally at stake may become, just that, normal and hardly registered.
This normalization of secrecy also speaks to the theme of moral ambiguity. For example, when wrongdoing is covered up and subsequently comes to light we may wonder how those involved could have colluded with it – recent examples might include the LIBOR rate fixing scandal or even more controversially the Jimmy Savile abuse scandal at the BBC where ‘cultural factors’ inhibited the reporting of his heinous activities to managers. Perhaps one answer lies in the normalization of secrecy within particular organizational contexts.
That most certainly isn’t to let people who do wrong off the hook it’s just, as in Massie’s novels, to understand that people sometimes do bad things for good reasons (and, for that matter, good things for bad reasons) or for reasons that seem good at the time, or just without really thinking about the reasons. So whilst Savile, like Labouche in Massie’s novels and in similar ways, was unequivocally immoral, those around him who colluded in concealing his activities were operating in a moral grey zone, where good and evil are much more difficult to judge.